Scientists released today the results of a four year worldwide integrated assessment of the effect of systemic pesticides, primarily the neonicotinoids but also fipronil (Twitter: #WIAlaunch). These pesticides, called 'neonics' for short, entered wide use in the 1990's when they were hailed as a new generation of chemicals with very low toxicity to vertebrates.
A growing number of studies contribute to suspicions that these pesticides are behind the rise of colony collapse disorder, and reduction in bee populations sufficient to raise fears that failing crop pollination could threaten human food supplies.
The WIA analyzed over 800 existing studies, attempting to tie together the disparate findings into a conclusive overview of how systematic pesticides interact with the environment. Many of the findings are shocking.
The concentrations of chemicals building up in waters exceeds levels approved as safe by pesticide regulations. Many of the species occupying critical links low in our food chains are being exposed via multiple pathways and by cocktails of chemicals acting together.
Earthworms constitute the most exposed populations, followed by bees and butterflies. Freshwater snails and water fleas, important to the aquatic food chain, are also at risk. And, although the neonics are generally safe for vertebrates, birds and reptiles are already at risk from consequences of the accumulation of systemic pesticides.
Scientists note that the prophylactic use of pesticides rivals CAFO antibiotic abuse; in both practices, chemicals are dosed into our environment causing real problems in a quest to avoid potential problems. Moreover, the neonics hang around in the soil -- sometimes for years -- which means the concentration of the pollutants build up over time. Worse, some of the degradation products (the chemicals which arise as the initial pesticides break down in soil or water) are more toxic than the original product.
Political actionToday, manufacturers claim that the science does not conclusively support a ban. In Europe, where the precautionary principle holds sway, the 'neonics' have been banned for a trial period. In the US, Obama recently established a pollinator health task force, seeking the 'conclusive' evidence needed to support lawmakers like Representatives John Conyers of Michigan and Earl Bluemenauer of Oregon who have proposed the Save America's Pollinators Act of 2013.
The WIA study should prompt action to curb the use of these pesticides, which make up 40% of the world insecticide market, until we can ensure that the purpose for which they are intended -- to feed the human population -- is not actually threatened by their ongoing use.